Following through on their blockade of Qatar for its support of terrorism, Saudi Arabia and its allies issued an unreasonable and harsh thirteen-point ultimatum to Qatar, which the country needs to fulfill in order for the trade and diplomatic embargo to be lifted. Qatar has been given ten days to comply with the demands or face unspecified consequences. This development constitutes a dangerous escalation of the conflict between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt on the other. The danger lies in the intersectionality of the historical roots of the conflict, an ill-informed American administration, and an assertive yet untrained young leadership in the Kingdom, with the upshot that Saudi Arabia may have no better option than invading Qatar and putting to rest its longtime desire to stymie dissent on the Arabian Peninsula.
Qatar fell under the sway of many powers. The Seleucids and the Persians dominated Qatar before Islam was introduced to the small sheikhdom in the seventh century. Known as a camel-breeding area under the Arab Umayyads (661–750 CE), Qatar developed mercantilist settlements during Arab Abbasid rule (750–1258), including a pearling industry around Qatar’s peninsula. Nevertheless, no other power has affected the social, religious and political character of Qatar than the emergence of the Saudi-Wahhabi state.
The origins of the Saudi-Wahhabi state can be traced to the historical alliance concluded in 1744 between the religious scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and tribal leader Muhammad bin al-Saud. The alliance rested on a religiopolitical understanding whereby, on the one hand, Abd al-Wahhab would employ al-Saud’s sword to propagate his fundamentalist version of Islam and eradicate what he considered un-Islamic rituals and beliefs in the holy land of Arabia; and, on the other hand, al-Saud would employ al-Wahhab’s religious banner to unite the hitherto fragmented Arab tribes. The alliance was cemented by the marriage of al-Saud’s son to Abd al-Wahhab’s daughter.
During the first unsuccessful attempt to establish the state, the Saudi-Wahhabis, by the late eighteenth century, expanded their rule to Qatif and Al-Hasa, on the southern border of Qatar. Ruled then by tribal sheikhs, Qatar felt the hegemonic power of the aspiring Saudi-Wahhabis. However, Qatar was saved from submission to Saudi diktat by their defeat at the hands of Egypt’s Muhammad Ali. It was during this time that Al Khalifa and Al Jalahima clans of the Bani Utbah tribe migrated from Kuwait to Qatar's northwest coast and founded Al Zubarah, which thrived as a trading center. This invited repeated attacks on Al Zubarah from an Omani sheikh who ruled Bahrain from Iran. In response, in 1783, Al Khalifa tribe, aided by Qatari tribes, invaded Bahrain and claimed sovereignty over it.
The reemergence of the Saudi-Wahhabi movement reconstituted the threat to Qatar, which witnessed inter-tribal rivalry. By 1824, Turki bin Abdullah Al Saud seized Riyadh and reestablished his rule over the central and eastern Arabian peninsula. In 1851, Faisal bin Turki tried to extend his influence over Qatar by ascertaining his right to enforce the collection of the annual religious tax under the Wahhabi banner. However, three concurrent developments took place. First, Great Britain, by way of safeguarding its interest in the Indian subcontinent, extended its influence across the eastern Arabian peninsula. Second, the Ottomans reasserted their influence over Hejaz and by the 1870s began to compete with the British over the control of the Eastern Arabian Peninsula. Significantly, they supported the Rashid tribe against Al Saud’s. Eventually, the Rashidis seized Riyadh in 1891, defeated Al Sauds in Central Arabia, and pushed them into exile in Kuwait. This marked the second defeat of the Saudi-Wahhabi state. Finally, in 1867, Al Thani tribe, leading a coalition of Qatari tribes, mounted a successful rebellion against Al Khalifa tribe, whose rule had become nominal. Significantly, Sheikh Muhammad Al Thani signed a maritime treaty with Great Britain to prevent piracy in the peninsula. Though the agreement was not a protectorate treaty, it signaled British formal recognition of Al Thani as the ruler of Qatar’s peninsula. No less significant, Qatar warmed its relationship with the Ottomans. Consequently, Qatar, by forging better relationships with both the British and the Ottomans, was able to fend off geopolitical and religiopolitical threats from both Al Khalifa tribe of Bahrain and the Saudi-Wahhabi state.
Eventually, the third attempt at creating the Saudi-Wahhabi state was successful under the leadership of Abd al-Aziz al-Saud. In addition to his shrewdness and determination, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and British support of his movement helped shift the tribal balance of power in his favor. In 1932, after thirty years since he launched his quest to reestablish the Saudi state, al-Saud proclaimed the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, as the Ottomans beat a retreat in the Arabian Peninsula, the British, in 1916, signed a protectorate agreement with Qatar, which served both countries. In exchange of supporting Great Britain and refraining from entering into any agreement with a foreign power without British permission, Qatar received British protection. This allowed the small fledgling sheikhdom to survive Saudi religious and geopolitical weight. In fact, in response to Doha’s oil concession to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1935, Saudi Arabia challenged the sovereignty of Qatar. However, King Abd al-Aziz al-Saud did not act on his threat because he did want to impair his relationship with the British.
It’s noteworthy that while Qatar came to embrace Wahhabism as its school of Islam, Doha, unlike Riyadh, did neither establish an indigenous Ulama class nor granted a special status to its religious establishment. Qatar does not have mutawa’in (religious police) to enforce morality and compliance with the pillars of the faith in public, and Qatar’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, which was established in 1993, has no role in educational curriculum design. Clearly, Al Thani rulers feared that granting formal state support to their own religious establishment would ultimately lead to strengthening Saudi Wahabi authority at their own expense. This has impacted Qatar’s society by reinforcing its desire to maintain its tribal, religious and political independence from the Saudi state.
Since its independence in 1971, Qatar’s geopolitical location and its quest for tribal, religious and political autonomy in the Gulf have defined its character and domestic and foreign policy. Following his ascension to power after a palace coup, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani set upon consolidating his control over oil production, organizing the government, and modernizing the country. He maintained balanced relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, despite territorial disputes, and in 1981 joined the Gulf Cooperation Council. During the first Gulf War in 1990, he enhanced his relationship with United States by making his country’s military bases available to the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. Following the war, he signed a security pact with the United States. Blamed for not taking full advantage of Qatar’s huge oil and gas resources, Sheikh Khalifa was overthrown in a bloodless palace coup by his son Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in 1995.
True, Sheikh Khalifa oversaw the rapid modernization of his country, which accelerated after it began to exploit vast reserves of natural gas; yet Sheikh Hamad had long been seen as the real power in the OPEC-member nation. Though the coup was treated more or less as a formality in Qatar, it rankled Arab Gulf leaders, especially the Saudi royal family. Worried about Sheikh Hamad’s bold coup setting a precedent in Gulf politics, the Saudis reportedly organized a plot to overthrow him in 1996. The plot failed and a number of involved Saudis were imprisoned. It took the intercession of King Abdullah with Sheikh Hamad for most of the imprisoned Saudis to be pardoned in 2010. Since the failed coup, Sheikh Hamad, empowered by Qatar’s growing wealth, had tried to reinforce his country’s status and centrality within the context of international politics as a means to insulate Doha from Saudi Arabia’s religious and geopolitics influence, save the Kingdom’s longstanding desire to control Doha.
Sheikh Hamad was swift in helping make Al Udeid Air Base the headquarters of Central Command when Saudi Arabia opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; funded Al Jazeera television station as a platform to tackle taboo and controversial issues in the Middle East; supported a motley group of Islamists and Salafists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas; and maintained close trade relations with Iran. Significantly, Qatar supported the Islamists during the Arab Spring, deeply unsettling the Kingdom. Sheikh Hamad is also purported to have said he seeks to “break Saudi Arabia’s monopoly in the region.”
In response, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies applied significant pressure on Qatar, whose leader abdicated in favor of his son Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in 2013. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE temporarily withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar after alleging that it had meddled in their internal affairs. Despite Qatar’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, tension between Doha and Arab Gulf capitals continued to escalate. Saudi Arabia has accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and cozying up to Iran at a time when the kingdom has been trying to blunt Iranian intervention in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
It was against this background that the Trump administration assumed power and reinvigorated American-Saudi ties, with the objective of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East and defeating the Islamic State. The administration accused Iran of being the “world’s leading state of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests.” Arguably, President Donald Trump’s vocal assertion during his recent visit to the Kingdom to cooperate and strengthen Saudi military role in the region mainly as a counterbalance to that of Iran was short-sighted and naïve.
As I wrote on these pages, certainly, United States should address all threats posed by Iran. Nevertheless, United States cannot address those threats by oversimplifying the context and background against which Iran carries out its spoiler regional role. True, Iran has had a deleterious role in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain; yet its role cannot be looked upon in isolation from Saudi Arabia’s policies in those countries. Notwithstanding Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the fundamentalist Wahhabi-Salafi creed whose theological and political ramifications cannot be discounted as principal factors for paving the way for Islamic radicalism, United States has supported Saudi policy on Yemen by espousing an oversimplified view of Iran’s intervention in Yemen. In much the same breath, United States has embraced an ill-informed position regarding the ongoing crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Washington, instead of addressing the crisis as an opportunity to help Qatar regulate its relationship with Iran and Islamists, has embraced a mixed and confusing position. On the one hand, President Trump implicated Qatar with funding terrorists; and on the other, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to tone down the crisis. He recently stated: “We believe our allies and partners are stronger when they are working together towards one goal which we all agree is stopping terrorism and countering extremism.”
Coming on the heels of Washington’s strong support of the Kingdom, this confusing U.S. position has only served to harden Saudi Arabia’s longstanding drive to control Qatar and, by extension, to subdue any dissent to its policy in the Arab Gulf. The early manifestations of this Saudi drive emerged with hastening the appointment of deputy crown prince Muhammad bin Salman al-Saud as the heir to the throne. Growing weaker by the day, King Salman has vested the overall interest and ambitions of the Kingdom in his young and spirited son. Resembled by some to the “founding father” of the Kingdom, Crown Prince Muhammad has taken on his shoulder the responsibility of curbing Iranian regional projection of power, defeating Salafi-jihadi organizations Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, reducing the societal influence of the Wahhabi religious establishment in the Kingdom, and bringing into line all dissenting voices in the Arabian Peninsula.
Apparently, the Crown Prince wants to continue where his grandfather (and other relatives) had left off: Complete domination of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of pliable Wahhabism and Saudi leadership. This is clearly reflected by the list of ultimatum delivered to Qatar, which is tantamount to turning Qatar into a Saudi vassal state.
It’s hardly possible for any sovereign country to submit to such unreasonable demands. For example, besides asking Qatar to reduce its diplomatic representation and restrict its commerce with Iran, it is called upon to close the Turkish military base in the country and stop all military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar; shutter Al Jazeera and its affiliates; pay compensation to victims, material losses including lost income due to Qatar’s foreign policy in the past; and to align itself with the GCC and Arab countries in all issues in ways that protects the national security of the GCC and Arab countries.
If history is any indication, Qatari rulers, short of an outright invasion of their country, would not comply with Saudi ultimatum and would seek help from multiple sources. Whereas today Iran and Turkey have stood with Qatar, Russia and China may be next in line to stand by the small sheikhdom and therefore enhance their presence in the Gulf. Conversely, Saudi Arabia will have no other choice to bring Qatar to its knees than threatening to invade the small sheikhdom.
Going beyond battling terrorism, the current crisis has its roots in the past, and has been exacerbated by a wishful thinking of reviving Saudi-Wahabbi hegemonic aspirations, thanks in no small measure to an American foreign policy ill-informed of the history, ambitions and contradictions of Arab rulers and politics.
Washington should take a firm and non-ambivalent position regarding the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, grounded in securing Doha from Riyadh’s aspiration of hegemony and protecting Riyadh from Doha’s adverse policies. Otherwise, Washington should not be surprised by more foreign intervention in the Gulf and/or another Gulf War.
Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon; Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East; Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism; Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism; and most recently The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities. He tweets at @robertgrabil.
Image: Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani (L) arrives at a military airport in Bogota, Colombia, July 25, 2016. REUTERS/John Vizcaino.